Motivation for Virtue

Virtue can bring many superficial benefits to the virtuous person.

What if people who know you start to think of you as virtuous, trustworthy, praiseworthy? What if they begin to speak of you in that way too? That will affect how you’re treated. It will make you feel good to know that people think of you and speak of you approvingly, because that’s how we’re wired. That excellent reputation might cause you to have more friends, to receive more gifts and favours, to advance further in the world.

That’s a possible outcome of a virtuous life, and it’s even a likely outcome. But it’s not the only outcome, either.

The virtuous person might become the object of envy. It’s good for the virtuous to be admired and imitated, but envious people actively want their enemies to be deprived of the good things they possess, and it’s not impossible for virtuous people to become the enemies of the envious.

The virtuous person, who is unwilling to descend into vice and falsehood and injustices, could also be taken advantage of. If two people are in competition and only one is willing to break the rules, the better person might end up worse off.

My point is this:

The beneficial outcomes of a virtuous life are not a good enough motivation for becoming virtuous.

Never mind that those are what actually tend to be the motivation. “Honesty is the best policy” means that you should do the right thing because it will benefit you.

But very often it is not the one who acts rightly that seems to have the best outcome. The people who become wealthiest and most powerful and most famous don’t necessarily get there because they were the most morally upright people in the race.

A desire to seem virtuous, to be seen and celebrated and remembered, might be a good starting point on the path to virtue, but it won’t carry a person far.

To become truly virtuous, it is necessary to investigate our motivations, and go deeper into the question of why we want to become a certain kind of person.

The only way to become virtuous is to make virtue “its own reward,” as they say.

And here’s the thing. If you do make virtue your goal, your motivation, your reward, then no one can ever take your happiness away from you, because for your happiness you won’t be depending on things outside your control, things like wealth or honour or pleasures. You will be depending only on your own virtue, which no one can ever take away from you without your consent.

To make virtue your reward is to be a truly happy person indeed, then.

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